PAWTUCKET, R.I. (WPRI) – Jason Olson had a stack of board games ready to go for a weekend with his daughter. But his refrigerator was empty.
“I got to the cash register with a whole cart full of stuff and my card was declined,” Olson said. “My whole body dropped, and I felt like everybody was looking at me because I’m standing there trying to use a card that isn’t working when I fully expected it to work.”
Olson said it was the first time he ever had a problem with his Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) benefits. He called the R.I. Department of Human Services for answers. He said he waited on hold for hours a day for two weeks straight.
“Nothing ever happened,” Olson recalled. “I never got in touch with anyone.”
Within a few days of Target 12 contacting DHS on Olson’s behalf, he received $173 on his card.
Since the Unified Health Infrastructure Project – known as UHIP – launched in September 2016, glitches and errors in the computer system have affected benefits and health care for tens of thousands of Rhode Islanders, and the problems persist.
In a recent email to Target 12, one viewer wrote, “I paid for health insurance but the insurance company said my account is suspended. I am at a dead end with no insurance.” Another viewer said she did not receive February’s food stamps.
The system was the subject of another House Oversight Committee hearing Thursday. Pressed by lawmakers on when the system would be stabilize, Secretary of Health and Human Services Eric Beane said it could take “several more months,” perhaps beyond June. There are still about 4,000 applications in the backlog.
“We are seeing signs of progress,” Beane said. “More work is being performed in the system: the average number of days it takes to determine eligibility has dramatically declined and the customer experience is improving.”
UHIP’s projected cost has ballooned to $492 million through the 2018-19 federal fiscal year, with $108 million of that amount to be covered by state taxpayers, according to the state’s latest estimate to the federal government.
Rhode Island stopped paying Deloitte, the contractor that built the system, a year ago. At the same time, Gov. Gina Raimondo apologized to Rhode Islanders for the flawed system, and fired multiple senior aides.
The state is now facing two federal class action lawsuits, filed by the Rhode Island chapter of the ACLU. One alleges some Medicaid recipients have not been given adequate notice about the termination of their benefits. The other accuses the state of illegal delays in providing SNAP benefits caused by the system.
Last fall a judge appointed a special master to try and find solutions to the SNAP issues. Lynette Labinger, an attorney for the ACLU, said the state has made significant progress since the special master was put in place, but said UHIP remains “considerably deficient.”
In Olson’s case, he said he went almost a month without money for food. He says he’s thankful for friends who gave him loans to get him through it, but he worries about others who may not have such a support network.
“Something needs to be done,” he said.